As police use private surveillance companies to track protesters and universities hire private forces, there’s a danger that public records of police abuse could disappear.

Rush Transcript:

Mr. Conway:                 In 2018, LookingGlass Security Solutions, a private security firm, spied on over 600 demonstrations and gave the locations where the demonstrations would happen or be organized at. During Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the Dallas Police Department tweeted asking anyone who has videos from protests to upload the videos in its Tip app. Here in Baltimore, last November, Goucher College switched from a College Public Safety Department to contracting GardaWorld, a company largely known as a private military contractor.

                                    Earlier this year, over 100 faculty members at John Hopkins University signed a letter opposing the school’s proposal to use private police force. Student protesters have fought the proposal since its announcement and, in 2019, occupied a campus building for a 35-day sit-in. Here to talk about both the national and local issues of private security firms and their surveillance, and their challenges as it relates to civil rights, Kush [inaudible 00:01:39] and Dr. Nathan Connolly. Thank you for joining me.

Dr. Nate Connol…:        Thank you.

Kush:                            Thanks for having me.

Mr. Conway:                 Kush, could you start this off maybe by just talking about what’s happening at John Hopkins with their private police force and their relationship with immigration and customs?

Kush:                            So, we found out that Hopkins was trying to discreetly pass legislation to allow them to have a private police force. And, although, the first bill was halted because of the overwhelming community resistance, the administration eventually was able to pass the bill after spending over half a million in lobbying. And when it and became clear that they had no intention of listening to the opposition we started the Garland sit-in, which was an act of civil disobedience and an escalation that we felt was necessary. So, we collaborated with Hopkins Coalition Against ICE, and the West Coalition led by Tawanda Jones. And our demands were to put a stop to the private police force and the contracts with ICE and to demand justice and accountability for Tyrone West, who was killed by BPD and Morgan State University Police. So, the sit-in ended with a police raid on Garland Hall, during which over 80 BPD cops, a helicopter, and a fire squad were called all to arrest seven protestors.

                                    During the sit-in, we were heavily surveilled and the director of student conduct even had to apologize for filming us in our sleep. They sent it to an admin group chat, which they used to monitor us. And they were constantly monitoring us, taking headcounts and looking at who was entering and exiting the building. And Hopkins already has over 600 cameras on campus, but they ramped up surveillance even more. We saw them unboxing cameras that they had ordered off Amazon. They installed it on posts outside the building. They even contacted some of our parents in an attempt to intimidate us. The students that were arrested were targeted and faced administrative hearings. One of the security officers even filed a criminal charge against one of the protestors. It was for false imprisonment, which was absurd.

                                    Later, we found out that they continued to target sit-in protesters. For example, there was a later protest, a group of students peacefully protested during a university event where the ex-CIA director, Michael Morrell was invited, and we held up signs. Afterwards four students that were also sit-in members who were targeted and kind of faced administrative hearings. So, we clearly felt that the surveillance, the intimidation and the targeting of protesters was used in a way that was meant to make an example out of protesters, and deter future protests. So, it gave us some indication of what the future of student protests would look like, if we had an armed police force.

                                    Later, after the uprising in Minneapolis, there was a renewed wave of protests against the university’s private police force. For example, a new coalition was formed, the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins. Some concerned faculty started a petition and it got over 6,000 signatures, and 100 organization signatures. And they rallied and they delivered it to President Daniel’s door. This was after the president announced that there would be a two year suspension of the police force. We thought that this was kind of a strategic move that serves the interests of the university, even though it’s definitely a win, because it allows them to sort of whether this moment of high public scrutiny without the opposition. And it also gives them a chance to replace Melissa Hyatt, who was the VP for Security and Daniel [An-ess 00:06:30] sort of recover from like the financial impacts of COVID.

Mr. Conway:                 Okay, all right. Thank you. Dr. Connolly, could you talk a little bit about why this private police force is impacting the community, or would impact the community? And maybe give us a little historical overview of policing in general?

Dr. Nate Connol…:        So, it’s pretty clear that the establishment of policing in North America goes hand-in-hand with the creation of any number of other racial or racist institutions. And I think a lot of what is concerning for members of the university community, for members of Baltimore City is that that history and those sets of racial practices is only going to be expanded with the expansion of policing. If you go back to as far back as the 1640s in a place like the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England, the creation of the Old Norman Constable system or New English style policing in North America was about policing Indigenous workers who were being impressed to work on plantations in Massachusetts.

                                    You flash forward 200 years to the 1840s, and you see, obviously, slave patrols being used to police labor and the plantation economy of the South. And even, then go forward another a hundred years to the 1940s, the arrival of Black police officers in cities across the South was still largely a racial project executed for the purposes of economic management and economic growth. So, you have Black officers who are banned from arresting white criminals, but instead are encouraged to use excessive force as a way of simply showing that Black communities are feasible places of investment, that Black consumers can safely be targeted by other kinds of investors. And so, there’s a very clear correlation between policing, racism and certain kinds of economic growth and extraction.

                                    What’s, I think, important to ask here in the Hopkins case, and I raise this as both a historian and also somebody who’s been a member of the Hopkins community for over 12 years now is to ask the question as to why there wasn’t already armed officers on the Hopkins campus? And this has a history. If you go back and look at even just school newspapers in the late 1960s, you’ll find that as recently as May 1968, you had officers on the Hopkins campus who were allowed the choice of carrying firearms.

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                                    And if you think about what America was and what the conversation was in 1968 around racism and around policing, it became pretty clear that that was not a good look for the university. That they needed to figure out other ways of ensuring public safety, that there was a broad conversation about the racism of white officers on the Hopkins campus. And that it was going to be necessary to not allow officers to be armed. Not even to allow them to carry mace, in some instances, because of the ways of which people were being injured by officers’ excessive use of mace, even in the late ’60s. And, in fact, there’s an incident from 1971 where a Johns Hopkins’ campus security officer carries a gun in a concealed fashion, basically illegally, and pulls it on students who are simply working late night on campus. And he’s summarily fired by the administration.

                                    And so, to me, this is a very important lesson about where conversations around guns on campus have already gone, why it was important in the context of the late ’60s to have a political conversation about who was the public, and who needs to be protected, who needs to be ensured their safety. And why now, in 2020, it’s again the political moment, to Kush’s point, that has made it very difficult for people to justifiably just accept the idea that you need weapons on university campuses in order to make them safe. I think, we are being invited to have a conversation that’s much more robust about what it means to not just, again, provide public safety, but to provide all the other things that make our community safer in terms of additional kinds of investment, other forms of democratic participation. And, in some ways, to take the George Floyd summer that this has been, the Breonna Taylor moment and ask much more pointed questions about how all of Baltimore City can be served by reinvesting in the public.

Mr. Conway:                 These police forces, the history of police forces have basically been state sanctioned with laws, regulations, rules, et cetera, and supposedly some sort of accountability. Of course, we realize in the last 200 and some years that that’s not true. But given the fact that, now, institutions and organizations are starting to use private security firms that are not under any kind of government regulations, that are not taxpayer funded, that might not necessarily be held accountable how is this going to impact today’s demonstrations, civilian rights to protest, et cetera? Just recently several people were killed as a result of armed people shooting protesters. So, how is this privatization of policing going to impact …? If you could talk a little bit about that doctor, and then you could follow Kush.

Dr. Nate Connol…:        Yeah, thank you, Mr. Conway. So, the important parameters for this moment really is set about 50 years ago in the late ’60s, early ’70s, where there was actual strong and robust anti-racist enforcement along the lines of basically holding institutions accountable that were using taxpayer monies. So, it may surprise some of your viewers to learn, for example, that Ivy league universities like Columbia, say for instance, was having up to $70 million of its federal funding impounded for not adopting more aggressive hiring measures, or having just a broader anti-racist campus climate. Over the course of the subsequent 50 years, American society, in general, has privatized any number of its arenas, basically, as a way of removing public accountability, to your point.

                                    And so, if you simply privatized public spaces, you privatize public education, you privatize public policing what that means is that the means of communication and accountability becomes smaller and smaller to the point where now in many universities, for instance, when you have violations of people’s rights most of these matters tend to get handled by on campus, attorneys. They tend to want to keep you out of the government arena, don’t file complaints with the DEOC. Instead, you, basically, have these settlements, you sign nondisclosure agreements and the like. So, all of the recourse and redress is held in a private manner, which then prevents the formation of even there being public narratives that a crime was even committed. So, you go from simply having an infraction handled in a kind of in-house and private way to, then the narrative or really the history of certain kinds of criminality, or certain kinds of discrimination itself gets privatized, truncated and really erased.

                                    And so, the danger of a moment now around policing is that it’s not just about not having hearings, or not having public trials, but even the record of where there are infractions or abuses of police power are in danger of being silenced completely. I mean, the Hopkins bill proposed the police accountability board that was supposed to, in some ways, be a public private conversation. But there’s a lot of questions that are still left to be answered around what happens with the records of these infractions. How much is the discussion of police abuse going to be made public in light of there being the possibility of people trying to pursue their rights within these private police force arrangements?

Mr. Conway:                 Kush, you want to follow up on that in terms of citizens rights being violated as a result of no regulations or oversight?

Kush:                            I think there are very serious implications for Hopkins having a private police force primarily because of the fact that their existing mechanisms for accountability, such as the Office of Institutional Equity or OIE, is severely lacking. And we have several grievances with them already. For example, they’ve proven that Hopkins security officers already can’t be held accountable. For example, during the raid, the police raid on Garland Hall, one of the protesters was attacked by a Hopkins security officer, and it was filmed from the first person view.

Speaker 4:                    [inaudible 00:15:22].

Speaker 5:                    [inaudible 00:15:15] I just seen them all over your screen and yelling at the top of her lungs. There was a whole bunch of them.

Kush:                            There was an assault.

Speaker 5:                    [inaudible 00:15:39]. They made it up, we didn’t do anything.

Kush:                            Because you didn’t do anything?

Speaker 5:                    Yeah.

Kush:                            So, we submitted that video, and the investigation took almost a year and it was entirely opaque. And they, finally, told us that we would have to report it to BPD. And then, when we continue to complain about it they finally told us that the officer had been disciplined, but they didn’t tell us … I mean, we have no way of knowing that anything happened because it all fell under this category of personnel matters.

                                    Even more recently, in the beginning of June, we reported that a Hopkins security supervisor had incredibly racist Facebook posts. One of them was victim blaming George Floyd. Some of them were like videos of police brutality with very antagonistic violence, inciting captions. For the last couple months, we’ve been trying to follow up on this, and it hasn’t really gone anywhere because, again, they told us that it falls under personnel matters. So, they can’t really tell us much.

                                    Another issue that we have is that we already deal with these racist incidents on campus involving our own security, and their accountability mechanisms are entirely opaque. And the other issue is that, a lot of these supervisors and officers they have a history in law enforcement. So, for example, this officer with the Facebook posts was ex-BPD. And also Melissa Hyatt, who was the vice president for security, they were with the Baltimore Police Department. And Melissa Hyatt was also a colonel with the Baltimore Police Department where she worked for about 20 years. She was in a leadership position during the Baltimore Uprising in 2015, and the incident with the gun trace task force. And, now, she’s chief of police at Baltimore County, and they’re still looking for a replacement for her.

                                    And we also know that a lot of these officers have military backgrounds. So, one of our major concerns is that the hiring pool is often the same when it comes to public and private police. And sometimes, I mean, it’s often the case that the private police security forces are a fallback for when officers are fired for misconduct in those rare cases. And there’s even less restrictions on hiring. So, that’s something that causes us a lot of concern. And, also, these officers would now be protected under the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights, which provides even more protections against transparency. So, that’s another major concern.

Mr. Conway:                 All right so, Goucher College, recently, had a private military security firm, GardaWorld, to spy on their demonstrations, and people demonstrating. The LookingGlass Security Cyber Solutions has spied on over 600 demonstrations, pinpointing their locations and passing it on to police. These are private military contractors and private security contractors. What do you think people that are protesting, demonstrating, or just walking by and getting swept up in this, what should they be doing, or what should they know and how should they deal with this? Doctor, can you start off, and then Kush, you can follow up.

Dr. Nate Connol…:        Well, I think the first step is, obviously, informing the public that this is indeed a problem and a matter of public concern. I know that you have face recognition software that, basically, is occupying the cracks in the constitution right now. It’s able to be used, but it’s not in direct violation of, basically, surveillance laws as they currently exist. And so, new laws have to be written. And so, as with many other problems, it’s going to require public education, political organizing in an effort to basically get laws re-drafted largely at the state level, and then ultimately something that can happen at the congressional level. But it has to be addressed along with any number of other public safety concerns.

                                    If you’re having the policing conversation, you need to have with that, a conversation about surveillance. I mean, it’s not legal in the State of Maryland to record somebody without their knowledge on audio tape. And yet, you have this other place where surveillance can happen and information can be transferred with pretty much impunity. So, it’s an important site of future organizing for sure.

Mr. Conway:                 Kush, can you followup with that question?

Kush:                            Something that we need to really focus on is the role of universities in surveillance technology. We know that Hopkins has hundreds of millions in contracts with the Department of Defense and the Air Force, and they have tens of millions in contracts with CBP, Customs and Border Patrol. So, even though we won one of our demands, which was to end the contracts with ICE, they still have contracts with Customs and Border Patrol. Some of the work that they’ve done at the applied physics lab is to develop design criteria for [inaudible 00:21:47]. And they developed a surveillance technology, known as [Min-a-tar 00:21:55]. And this technology, it’s used by the Navy, and now it’s also being used by CBP’s predator drones.

                                    And the first predator drone we saw in Minneapolis after the George Floyd protests, and we know that CBP also had drones on standby in Portland, where they were disappearing protestors. So, we really need to end the militarization, it begins with research universities, as well as our local police departments. So, we need to demand that our universities and companies divest from the surveillance state.

Mr. Conway:                 We’ll continue to watch this and follow this. And if any new developments occur in Hopkins’ case, or in the national case that you’re aware of that might be beneficial, please get back in contact with us. So, thank you for joining me.

Dr. Nate Connol…:        Thank you.

Kush:                            Sure. Thanks for having me.

Mr. Conway:                 And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer

Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.